March 13, 2009, Press Release: Little brown jobs (LBJs) Slipping South to the Delight of Birders

LBJs Slipping South to the Delight of Birders
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By Joe Kosack , Wildlife Conservation Education Specialist, Pennsylvania Game Commission

HARRISBURG, Pa., March 13 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The view out the window seems to be the same old, same old for many folks who feed songbirds over winter. But the Pennsylvania Game Commission is encouraging residents to look a little closer. Those LBJs on your birdfeeder may not be the same LBJs you usually see.

Little brown jobs (LBJs) is a term some birders and biologists use to describe small, semi-brown songbirds that they see briefly but can't identify, because their markings aren't noticeable enough. It usually refers to sparrows and finches. Right now there's a new LBJ in state, and it has nothing to do with our 36th president, or his wife, Lady Bird .

The latest LBJ to surface in Pennsylvania and states further south is the pine siskin. The birds have a house finch-like appearance and are related to American goldfinches, two common visitors to backyard feeders year-round in the Commonwealth. In fact, at first glance, only a trained eye is probably going to catch pine siskins at his or her feeder. But siskins are smaller than house finches, have smaller bills than goldfinches, and have distinguishing yellow wing-bars and a flash of yellow under their wings. The easiest way to pick up on their presence in your neighborhood is to intercept their distinct, rising buzzy "zzcree" call while you are outdoors.

"Pennsylvania birders have been delighted by flocks of pine siskins at their feeders and winter hangouts for the past couple months," said Doug Gross , Game Commission endangered bird specialist. "They can be found just about everywhere this winter, but you'll have to look closely to identify them. They often feed with American goldfinches, landing first in birches and conifers in search of seeds. They also gravitate toward the commotion at backyard feeders when they near these activity centers.

"Pine siskins are not the only boreal drifters that have been living off Pennsylvania this winter. White-winged crossbills also are about. Although these irruptive species come south only when food supplies are low in their normal northern range, each species has its own preferences and tendencies to migrate."

The birds are attracted to birdfeeders with black-oil sunflower or thistle seeds. But they also can be commonly seen along roads and driveways, where they consume considerable amounts of grit or salt, or when they pick through cone-bearing conifers and birches for seeds.

Siskins are more at home in the northern forests of Canada, but occasionally unfavorable winter conditions make it a matter of life or death for them to move where food is more readily available. When they head south, they don't just go on autopilot and put down in Pennsylvania. Usually, they only go until they find food. Many apparently liked what Pennsylvania offers.

Ironically, Pennsylvania's fall food supplies for many of its forest species have been anything but spectacular because of gypsy moths caterpillars and other forest pests and diseases. However, since these panhandling finches are tapping unaffected seed stores and chugging roadside grit, they've stumbled into a comfortable setting with plenty of elbow room, especially since that fair-weather neotropical crowd left in the fall.

"Although siskins do come enthusiastically to feeders, they also forage on birch catkins, cone seeds of spruces and other small-coned trees, and small seeds of perennial plants," Gross said. "They're opportunists like most other winter birds. Hopefully, they'll visit your feeder. But just because you're offering the right stuff - black-oil sunflower and thistle seeds - doesn't mean they'll positively come. But the opportunity to see a siskin now is greater than it has been in a long time."

But don't despair if you're not attracting those Canadian LBJs. Maybe your feeders will pull in the more colorful, and unique-looking white-winged crossbills, which also currently are hanging out in Pennsylvania. They have a peculiar bill. In fact, at first glance, a crossbill looks like a bird with a case of bill malocclusion. But when other crossbills appear, with the same unique, misaligned beak, observers recognize it's natural, not supernatural.

White-winged crossbills come in two conspicuous colors. Males are red; females, yellow. They should attract your attention almost immediately if they visit your feeders. They also contrast well when foraging in conifers and sometimes they can be located by listening for cone scales hitting the leaf litter beneath the trees in which they're feeding.

"White-winged crossbills can be quite vocal when feeding," Gross explained. "They have a nervous, twittery trill and uprising call notes, but they're not as loud or robust as red crossbills. Males will sing in winter, but that doesn't mean they're nesting. In fact, there's never been a documented nesting of white-winged crossbills in Pennsylvania. But, they have nested in New York near the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border. They nest regularly in New York's Adirondack and Catskill mountains. Red crossbills have nested occasionally in Pennsylvania.

"This could be the year that Pennsylvania adds the white-winged crossbill to our state breeding bird list. If you happen upon nesting white-winged or red crossbills, please contact the Game Commission to report your find. But, even if a few crossbills or siskins remain in Pennsylvania to nest, the vast majority of these visiting finches will head north by mid-April."

Also please consider entering any crossbill and pine siskin sightings into Pennsylvania eBird, which can be accessed in the upper right-hand corner of the Game Commission's homepage ( Just follow the link to "Submit Observations," and you'll be on your way to contributing to Pennsylvania's bird conservation efforts.

Since crossbills and pine siskins converge on similar habitat, you can try to look them up afield in wild and planted conifer stands. Siskins and crossbills like to hang upside-down from branches. Favored stands include native pines and spruces, larch (tamarack), douglas and concolor fir, and red and white spruce. Stands of white and black birch also should provide a decent opportunity to see these visitors from the north.

If your backyard didn't attract these birds of the north this winter, it could be related to what you offer in your feeders, where those feeders are located or a dearth of trees and shrubs in your yard. You may need to spruce it up with some plantings, relocate your feeder and fill it with the right stuff.

Feeders should be loaded with black-oil sunflower seeds. An additional thistle feeder is a plus. Adding a block of suet also helps to attract a wider variety of birds. Since birds cannot see glass, feeders should be located at least 15 feet away from windows. Placing feeders closer than 15 feet to windows will lead to bird collisions. It's also a good idea to clean feeders regularly and place feeders near trees or shrubs to provide cover to birds cracking seeds or waiting to grab seeds from the feeder.

The Game Commission recently has received a number of reports about pine siskin mortality - and other species - at bird feeders. The cause appears to be Type B Salmonella, which is a human pathogen as well, and the young, elderly and immune-compromised are at particular risk.

If you encounter sick or dead birds at or near your feeder, discontinue feeding. Clean your feeder with soap and water then a 9:1 bleach solution, remove spent seed from around the feeder, and wait a week or more before feeding again. If you find more than five dead birds at or near your feeders, please contact the nearest Game Commission region office. Contact information is available on the agency's website at

Pennsylvania bird watchers also should be aware that the Scotts Company LLC recently announced that it is voluntarily recalling specific lots of five varieties of suet wild bird food products after learning those products may contain peanut meal purchased from the Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Blakely, Georgia, because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. (For more information, please see this link to the FDA website:

Also, Kentucky-based Burkmann Feeds recently announced that it is voluntarily recalling Wild Birds Unlimited Wildlife Blend bird food after tests conducted by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Food and Drug Protection Division revealed the presence of Salmonella bacteria. (For more information, please see this link to news release:

Instead of artificial feeding, Pennsylvanians are encouraged to explore the many inexpensive plantings for their yards, some of which are available from the Game Commission through its Howard Nursery. Focus on blue and white spruce for boreal birds, but consider adding Canadian hemlock and American sweet crabapple for native songbirds. An order form can be downloaded from the agency's website at, click on "Forms and Programs" in the left-hand column, then click on the "Howard Nursery Seedling Program." The deadline for orders is April 24.

"Making your yard a bird paradise is an exceptional way to help songbirds at a time when habitat continues to disappear with alarming frequency," Gross said. "Remember, our wild birds can never have too many friends!

"Also, if you don't catch the irruptive winter finches shouldn't feel too left out. Spring migration is just around the corner and backyards will soon be stopovers for an exceptional parade of neotropical birds making their way north or returning to Pennsylvania to nest."

Note to Editors: If you would like to receive Game Commission news releases via e-mail, please send a note with your name, address, telephone number and the name of the organization you represent to: [email protected]

Note to Editors: Photos to accompany this feature may be downloaded from the agency's website - - by clicking on Release #032-09 in the "News Release" section.

    CONTACT: Jerry Feaser
[email protected]

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